Al Stewart comment

Al Stewart: Bournemouth Pavilion

It was good to see singer-songwriter Al Stewart back in Bournemouth this week and playing a show that revisited an old stamping ground. As a local teenage musician Al used to play a regular Tuesday night residency at the Pavilion Ballroom. In those distant days young Al was lead guitarist in The Sabres, a beat group whose singer, Tony Blackburn ( Yes, THE Tony Blackburn), would tear off his gold lame jacket and writhe histrionically on the stage in an attempt to warm up the crowd for headliner Zoot Money. 

Al was 17 back then. He’s 71 now and has enjoyed a stellar international career that really took off when, in the mid 1970s, he found new words for an old song that he had penned about tragic fellow Bournmouthian, the comedian Tony Hancock. It had been called Foot of the Stage but no one in the music business was much interested in his tale of the doomed and suicidal Hancock. Then one day he saw a book on Oriental astrology which, combined with memories of his favourite movie, Casablanca, gave him the lyric for The Year of the Cat. He’d already made something of a mark on the music scene that one song catapulted him to a whole new level.

 It was a lucky break. After Bournemouth Al had moved to London, become one of the darlings of the 1960s folk revival, played all the right clubs and hung out with the movers and shakers of the semi-underground, post-beatnik scene. He'd even shared a flat with visiting American folkie Paul Simon who, despite having already written Homeward Bound and The Sound of Silence, was essentially penniless. In fact a desperate Simon offered his flatmate the chance to buy 50 per cent of his back catalogue. He wanted £5,000. Not a remotely achievable sum for the young Mr Stewart.

These days Al chuckles wryly when he ponders what could have been. Music business insiders estimate that had he, or anyone else for that matter, invested £5,000 in the mid 1960s Paul Simon song catalogue they’d probably be sitting on a £10 million plus fortune today.

Not that Al has done too badly. He lives in the US with an impressive wine cellar and an enviable reputation as a writer of erudite and worldly-wise songs. His own back catalogue of some 20 albums proves the point admirably. 

Right now he’s back in the UK and out on the road with his Back to the Bedsit tour, playing stripped-back acoustic versions of songs from the past 50 years. The title references the fact that Al originally launched his recording career with the 1967 album Bedsitter Images, the title song of which was his opener at the Bournemouth concert.  Astonishingly the show was his first at the town’s Pavilion ( the theatre this time rather than the adjacent ballroom) since 1962. 

For those who had been in it for the long haul it was a strangely nostalgic occasion. Al's early days as a bedsit troubadour provided introspective and soul-searching songs for young fans experiencing the raw excitement and sometimes misery of living away from home for the first time - cold beans, no money for the meter - it all seemed such a very long time ago

In those days Al Stewart’s style was very much one of late sixties chic. Cascading shoulder length locks, flowery shirts and Afghan coats. Today, with his neatly trimmed grey hair he looks positively business-like. Softly spoken, slim and well-groomed in his crisply ironed shirt and expensive looking formal trousers, he could be a retired doctor, dentist or lawyer.

He doesn’t look like a singer-songwriter from the days of flower-power and psychedelia. At least not in the way that most people imagine. Watching him on stage you quickly realise that such superficial trappings are meaningless. When Al starts singing the years fall away.

With guitar accompaniment from long-time collaborators Dave Nachmanoff and Tim Renwick, Al plundered his own back catalogue with joyous abandon. Nachmanoff and Renwick are a force to be reckoned with. The former is a resting academic with a doctorate in philopsophy and a penchant for writing songs inspired by Plato and Descarte while the latter is a one time stalwart of The Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, has worked multiple times with Pink Floyd and has played on scores of hit singles. 

They were a fine choice. The subtlety and dexterity of the acoustic backing, enhanced by percussion, flute  and sax from guest Marc Macisso, helped emphasise the strength of Al's lyrics. Songs like On the Border, Night Train to Munich, Palace of Versailles and Old Admirals displayed the intelligence, sense of place and history at the core of his work. 

He may be a singer-songwriter but essentially he’s simply a writer. If he wasn’t writing songs I am certain that Al Stewart would be writing poems, plays, history books, anythin, but he’d certainly be writing. He clearly loves words and after a lifetime of writing songs full of observations of places, characters and events, he’s very good indeed at using them.

His life has been extraordinary. Even back when he was sharing that London apartrment with Paul Simon he had a knack of finding himself at the centre of the action. That  shambolic East End flat also played host to an intriguing array of individuals including Simon’s sigunbg partner, Art Garfunkel, and also Sandy Denny and her then boyfriend, the enigmatic but sadly doomed American singer-songwriter Jackson C Frank. 

He regarded Paul Simon as a particular mentor and once told me. "He was a bit older than me and a phenomenal songwriter. I suppose I was a bit in awe of him but I remember once having this incredible argument with him.

"I'd just got the Bob Dylan Highway 61 album, had spent something like six hours getting Desolation Row down pat. I thought it was brilliant, but Simon just dismissed it as re-hashed Ferlinghetti (a reference to the San Francisco-based Beat poet and owner of the legendary City Lights Book Shop).

He remembers Simon finishing the song Homeward Bound in the bedroom next door and raced back to Bournemouth to play it to friends. "I thought it was a great song, but although it was big on the folk scene none of the record companies seemed interested at all."

A couple of years later, when Stewart headed for America, he found himself in the highly agreeable position of possessing only one US phone number... that of Paul Simon.

In the event his old flat-mate offered Al the opportunity of going out on the road with Simon and Garfunkel in the relatively meagre role of roadie. It was a learning curve that he grabbed with both hands. "I may only have been carrying the guitar cases but I found myself in New York for the first time in my life sitting in a helicopter on our way to a gig at Cornell University,” he told me.

"Simon and Garfunkel were huge at the time. They'd already had one number one and I remember just looking down at the city and thinking how amazing it was. "Suddenly there was this little voice saying: 'If this helicopter crashes I'm gonnna get a second number one in a big hurry...'. It was Paul... and not really what I wanted to hear." In fact, as Al points out, Simon and Garfunkel achieved the second number one anyway.

Jeremy Miles

© Jeremy Miles 2017